Greek Festival

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I usually miss out on any type of festival because I work weekends. Therefore, I am extra vigilant when it comes to finding things to do. Imagine my surprise when I found a a Greek Festival, which started on a Thursday night! I perused the festival’s website, and I knew I had to go.

It is clearly a popular festival; it is the 51st year, and the grounds were packed for a Thursday. Silly me, I thought it would be empty. The festival is hosted by the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

The biggest draw was the food. I got my staple spanakopita, which is a spinach and cheese-filled pastry and Derek tried a tiropita, which is a cheese-filled puff pastry. We shared a Greek salad as well (one can never have too much feta cheese!) Round two for food included Souvlaki, which is beef cubs with onions on a skewers (it was so tender!)  and Koulourakia, which are butter cookies that are popular during the Easter holiday.

In-between filling our stomachs, we caught the Greek dance program which was all traditional dances and costumes. There was also live music on the grounds as well. There was a huge marketplace, with all kinds of vendors.

We both had a good time; it was nice to get a glimpse into a different culture.

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Swamp Sunflowers

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Every October the meadow trail at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center blooms with swamp sunflowers. Last October, I visited the Arboretum for the first time, and coincidentally it was during the blooming period. This October I went purposely to get  photos of the meadow (and some photos of me!)

Swamp sunflowers are a variation of the sunflower, and they grow in all coastal, wet areas, from the gulf to the eastern coast. This makes sense, because this meadow is right next to a pond.

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Events at Rothko Chapel

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Rothko Chapel is a place in Houston that is meant to be for everyone. It has “chapel” in its name, but it is non denominational, and can be a place where people come and sit and meditate and enjoy the quiet. It also serves as an art instillation, with large canvases all painted different shades of black by Mark Rothko.

Derek and I came here once a few months ago, and I had to leave after a minute because the silence unnerved me!

But with that said, there are also lots of community events that are held at the Chapel.

The chapel started a series of “Healing in Community After Hurricane Harvey” events. I went to one last week, for the purpose of writing an article for work (see link below) but I enjoyed it so I came back yesterday just for myself.

Last week’s event was more religious based. A local reverend led the attendees through prayer, but also meditation and discussion. Her overall message was about purgation and catharsis, and how that can lead us to feel free.

Yesterday’s event was titled “We Are All Folkloric.” The leaders of the event, lead everyone in finding words to help us create a four word poem.

We first all came up with words to describe the emotional residue that we perceived in the city. Then we came up with  words to describe the good we saw. Some of my words were guilt, anxiety, strength, comfort and friendship.

Then we had to use these words and discussion to help us come up with the poem describing what we re-imagine for the city. It had to be a verb, noun, preposition and then noun. Mine was “Growing ourselves through trials.”

After both of these events, everyone stuck around to chat, give hugs and ask, “How are you doing?” It can be, and was, helpful to move forward.

http://www.chron.com/neighborhood/bellaire/events/article/Rothko-Chapel-hosts-post-Harvey-community-12229657.php#photo-14224178

Our Hurricane Harvey experience

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This is a long post, so readers you are warned!

Experience a hurricane – check. Okay, now that that’s done, I don’t ever want to experience one again!

The past few weeks have simultaneously felt like one long endless day, or 1,000 years. So much has happened since Friday before the hurricane hit, and I want to write everything down, all the little details, so I will not forget later.

On Thursday night, August 24, Harvey was still churning in the gulf, expecting to hit the Texas coast south of us. We knew to expect a lot of rain, but the forecast was still iffy at that point. The forecast went like this: Harvey, upon landfall, would be stuck in-between two pressure systems, and then stall for a few days, hence all the rain fall. The forecast was calling for about 10-15 inches of rain, which sounded bad. I had already asked my boss if I would be able to work from home, since I work on weekends, right when the worst would seem to happen. I was given instructions on how to connect to the work system. That lifted a load off my mind.

I suggested to Derek that we go to Target to get some non-perishable food, and fill up our tank of gas. I had gone grocery shopping on Tuesday, so we did have plenty of pantry food, but not quite a variety I’d like to have if the power went out. I have heard horror stories about the power being out for two weeks after Hurricane Ike. Thankfully, I get my meat separately, and due to the impending forecast, I had decided to hold off. So if we did lose power, we wouldn’t lose too much food.

Going to the Target was when things started feeling scary. On our way, we stopped at the Valero, the gas station we usually go to, and there were signs over all the pumps saying OUT OF GAS. Wow. Okay then. Then we stopped at a second gas station, and it was the same thing. Plastic bags covering all of the pumps. We sighed our first sigh of relief out of many for that week when there was gas at the third gas station.

Then it was on to the Target, where there was pandemonium. There was no water left, and most of the shelves were picked clean already, but we did manage to stock up on the usual stuff: chips, fruit cups, granola bars and beef jerky. I wanted pineapple cups, and there was one left, on the top shelf way in the back, too high for my small frame to reach. Derek was in another aisle, so I took matters into my hands and I climbed up the shelves.

After we got back home, we felt like we did everything we could do up until that moment, so we enjoyed the last night of what would be restful sleep for a while.

On Friday I went into work, and I asked my boss, “What happens if I lose power AND I am stranded? I can handle one or the other, but both? He calmed me down a bit, saying that there were emergency teams in place to make sure the Chronicle, a daily paper, got out every day. However, there were no measures in place for the weeklies, which I work for. He basically said that if we absolutely had to put the papers out a few days late, then so be it. He also told me that he saw no reason for me to come in on Saturday and Sunday and to work from home if the weather was bad. That put less pressure on me.

Throughout the day it was gloomy and it rained on and off all day. It didn’t seem like things were all that bad, but it was just a precursor of what was to come.

The highlight of the evening was when my birthday package from my parents came, and the labels were so water logged that you couldn’t read anything. The ink smeared right off! Luckily Derek had the tracking number.

Hurricane Harvey strengthened rapidly that evening. I had a pre-season football game on, and it was weird to have a second smaller screen on the TV showing the imminent land fall of Harvey. Harvey made landfall near Rockport, Texas, at 10 p.m.

We woke up on Saturday morning to – surprisingly – nothing. I still made the decision to stay home on Saturday, because I didn’t know how the day would unfold. Truth be told, I could have gone into work and been fine. There were even parts of the day where it didn’t rain for hours. We were starting to wonder if maybe the forecast was wrong.

Derek wanted to go out to take some photos for a school project, so I joined him. We went to Rice Village, which is a little area filed with shops. A few cafes were open, but most of the stores were closed. Some even had sand bags in front of the doors, and one boutique wrote GO AWAY HARVEY on their windows. I took photos of those stores and sent them to the Chronicle.

On Saturday night, I talked to my mom and dad who were eager for updates. I had found a website that was tracking rainfall totals in the city, and there was one rain gauge close to where we are. I told them, that up until that point, 3.52 inches of rain had fallen. My dad said, “That’s it?” And in some twisted way, I was disappointed. But I didn’t have to be disappointed for long.

Later that night, we got a thunderstorm that lasted over an hour, with heavy rain for longer than that. The lightning was endless. I was shocked we did not lose power then. Just like that, we went from 3.52 to 6.76 inches of rain. Woah. Now we’re talking. We put on our boots and walked around in the parking lot to check on our cars. The water was up over the toes of my boots!

Sleep that night was hard. We were woken up in the middle of the night more than once to flash flood alarms on our phones. The rain consistently pounded outside, all night long.

I woke up at 7:30 that morning, and looked outside the window. Whew, we weren’t under water. Then I turned on the news, and found out that just about the rest of Houston was under water. The first scene I saw on the TV was of Interstate 610, exit 4, which is about the half way point of my commute to work. That was under water. Well, I definitely was not going into work that day.

I checked the website for rainfall totals, and I couldn’t believe it. We had gotten 10 inches of rain overnight, and now the total for our area was 16.16 inches. It was already past the initial forecast, which I should mention that it had since been updated and was now calling for 30 inches.

I texted that number to mom and dad, who immediately called me. They had the news on as well. Together, we repeated the words, Oh my God, Oh my God, OH MY GOD with every broadcasted scene we saw.

This is when the days start to blur together. It was extremely hard to try to concentrate on work, when the news was a constant spew of disaster. Derek and I were constantly underfoot for each other, and tensions were running high. But that is a small price I had to pay. As I put it when I was talking to a friend, “We may have cabin fever, but at least we still have our “cabin.”

We ventured out a few times over the next two days out of curiosity, and a journalistic duty. It was eerie to walk out on an empty I-610, a six lane major highway that is normally filled with traffic. It was even scarier to see a constant stream of cars that were driving up the road, and then a few minutes later we would see them coming back with their flashers on, driving the wrong way. At least they were heeding the flashing sign, “Turn around, don’t drown.” There were cars abandoned up and down the whole street. Brays Bayou, which I normally pass over on my way to work, looked like a furious river, and it had already down quite a bit before we were able to get their safely. A few days later, we noticed that some streets, in particular the ones closest to the bayous, all looked like construction zones. Everyone’s possessions were all in giant piles on the curb.

Work was a flurry of activity. I was torn between being jealous and relieved that I was not at the flood zones to take pictures and report the news. I felt useless, and soon that turned into survivor’s guilt. I couldn’t comprehend that we were safe and dry, and houses just two miles down the road were underwater. One of my co-workers lost almost everything. Her and her husband had to evacuate from their roof into a boat. Derek also knows professors who have lost everything.

But through it all, I did manage to find my own ways to help out. I wrote a short article about a University of Houston Professor who was new to Houston, and his reaction to how UH and the city came together in times of need. I also put in a ton of over-time. I did two double shifts to help relieve people on the copy desk. I helped set out lunch one day for employees. I donated money to Mayor Turner’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, and shared the link for others to donate too.

Speaking about lunch, the generosity of other newspapers has been amazing. One day I had lunch courtesy of the Dallas Morning News; another day I had lunch courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle. My boss told me that he was fielding phone calls from all over the country who wanted to feed the reporters, most of whom had worked a week straight.

I was working an evening shift on Tuesday, when the storm finally decided it had enough of Houston and moved out. Five days later. I was walking past a window when I noticed the sky looked brighter than normal. The sun was out, and there was blue sky! We had not seen the sun in five days. At that point, our area had seen just over 32 inches of rain. There were other places that had seen up to 50, which broke a U.S. record.

A few weeks later, and we’re still seeing Harvey news non stop, but things are slowly returning back to normal, or at least as normal as things can get. This hurricane has changed everyone’s lives in Houston in someway. It is not something I will ever forget.

National Museum of Funeral History

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Yes, you read the title right. There is a National Museum of Funeral History in Houston. I visited there yesterday to write an article for work. The museum is celebrating its 25th anniversary this fall.

The museum truly lives up to the “history” part of the title. I interviewed the president of the museum, and I told her that there were similar items in the Smithsonian museums in Washington D.C.

Someone might say, who the heck wants to go to a funeral museum, but it really was fascinating. There are many different exhibits, all focusing on a different aspect.

For instance, there was an extensive collection of hearses and coffins, and some of them were really ornate like a white children’s hearse from the 1800s.

There was also a section dedicated to famous people who have passed on, a Day of the Dead altar and a section about presidential funerals. I loved seeing more artifacts from Abraham Lincoln’s funeral! They even have the hearse that carried Presidents Regan and Ford!

Visitors to the museum can also learn about the history of embalming, starting with the Egyptians and then during the Civil War.

The biggest area of the museum was an exhibit on the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II, and a look at Popes in general. This was a collaboration with the Vatican itself, so a lot of the items were authentic.

I was surprised in a good way by what I found, and learned, at the museum. If you are looking for something to do in Houston that is different, look no further.

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One year later – an editorial

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One year ago today, we pulled out of our driveway in Wellsboro, and started the 1,600 mile drive to Houston. I wrote an editorial for the Houston Chronicle about the last year and how Houston is different from Wellsboro.

I have included the link, and a copy/paste version of the text below.

http://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/To-Houston-from-Wellsboro-Pa-population-3-326-11526896.php

 

I’ve discovered the wonder that is Buc-ees. I’ve photographed bluebonnets in spring, and I’ve eaten my way through multiple flavors of Blue Bell.

Since moving to Houston last August, I realized that everything truly is bigger in Texas (except for our one-bedroom apartment.) I moved from Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, home of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, population 3,326.

We moved because my husband is pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Houston. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the amount of students at the university (more than 40,000) is around the same amount of people in our rural county.

Coming here has been like living in a completely different world. There are so many city-related things that are a part of anyone’s day that I would have never given a second thought before.

For one thing: Traffic reports. They’re on the news every morning! The only traffic I had to worry about was the occasional bear and deer running across the road. I would sometimes get stuck behind a truck going 40 miles per hour, but here I realize that you’re lucky to be going that fast any given day on 610.

I’d much rather stay home than try to battle other drivers if it’s more than a 10-mile drive, a far cry from being used to driving hours all over the northeast.

And the noise. Not only the noise of the 10 or so lanes of traffic right outside our door, but the sounds of planes and helicopters constantly overhead. I had not seen an airplane overhead in the 10 years I was in Pennsylvania. My husband constantly has to repeat himself if he talks to me outside our apartment, because I cannot hear him over the rows and rows of air conditioners that are consistently running.

The loudest thing I have ever heard, without a doubt, was the fighter jet flyover during the Super Bowl. We live close to NRG, and it rattled the whole place. The cats ran under the bed.

And the many options … for, well, everything. How do Houstonians even choose? Where to go, what to do, what to eat, where to shop? It’s all mind-boggling at times. We visited more stores in the first week of being in Houston than in years of living in Wellsboro. The first time I went grocery shopping, I had an anxiety attack.

It’s the worst with restaurants. There are so many options here for each cuisine, and a lot of it’s unfamiliar territory for us.

I remember trying crawfish for the first time. I am a picky eater, and I kept finding excuses not to try it.

But it was the season, and I found a restaurant hosting a crawfish special for $7 a pound on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, perfect for my work schedule — and my frugality.

My husband and I tried to prepare ourselves in advance by watching YouTube videos on how to open them, but they left us more puzzled. You really have to suck the fat out of the heads?

But we got there, and the platters were put in front of us. We asked our waiter for good measure how to open and eat them, but he just chuckled and walked away.

We eventually figured it out after consulting the internet once again on our phones. The crawfish, along with the corn on the cob and potatoes, were excellent, but my lips were burning so badly by the spices that I was crying at the table.

I do miss Pennsylvania, at least some of it. I miss homemade maple syrup, and I miss the mountains, especially in the fall with the bright foliage. I miss making trips to the Mennonite general store.

But I feel like Texas, with all of its hustle and bustle, is where I am meant to be.

Downtown underground tunnels

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Did you know that Houston has underground tunnels connecting all of the major buildings downtown? We didn’t know until recently, when I came across it online.

If you ever think that downtown is a bit empty during lunch time, there is a reason for that. Everyone is just below you! I expect a lot of people use the tunnels for relief from the summer heat.

It is like a little city underneath the city with multiple entrance points. There are over six miles of tunnels. We entered through one of the towers; there was an escalator going down right in the main lobby.

The tunnels are a large maze of sorts, with lots of long twisting and turning hallways, but there are maps every so often so you know where you are.

The tunnels are a mixture of shops, restaurants and food courts. Derek commented that it almost had an airport terminal feel. Most of the shops were errand related, like dry cleaners, banks and pharmacies. A one stop shop for workers on their lunch break. In fact, Derek’s bank had an office down there, so we stopped in and we were able to get a card for me for his account. It was something we had been meaning to do.

We had really good Chinese food at Dumpling House in one of the food courts. It was cheap too, can’t beat that. Funny because the Chinese food restaurant back in Wellsboro is called Dumpling House too.

It was interesting to explore a whole new level of the city. We will probably venture down there again, because there were a lot of good looking places to eat.

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